Memorex moments

Pre-recorded speeches make room for snazzier show

Stung by last year’s ratings dip, the Academy of TV Arts & Sciences is still searching for the answer to its Emmycast conundrum.

Just 14 million viewers caught the 2004 broadcast, the event’s second-smallest audience. With other kudo fests such as the Golden Globes battling declining returns, TV Academy members have been thinking how to repackage the primetime ceremony.

But as they found earlier this year, change doesn’t come easy. The Acad floated several proposals that would have significantly altered the Emmy telecast but after much consternation, settled on a less-sweeping compromise.

As it now stands, live acceptance speeches from winners in all directing and writing categories as well as for awards for telepics, miniseries, variety/music/ comedy series and specials, have been eliminated. Instead, nominees in the categories will all tape their thank yous beforehand; the winner’s pre-recorded speech will run as they head toward the stage. The TV Acad believes it can shave around 20 minutes from the show by airing those taped speeches.

San Francisco Chronicle TV critic Tim Goodman believes the Emmycast suffers from some of the same problems faced by the Oscar kudofest: Too much fat.

“They attack a lot of stuff at the back end, and blow it in the middle with stuff people aren’t interested in,” Goodman says. “The Emmys could do a lot better if it developed a sense of looseness and had more fun but also said, ‘Here’s our good stuff.’ TV is as good as film in so many ways. Let’s give it adequate presentation.”

According to ATAS chairman Dick Askin, those extra 20 minutes will give producers a chance to rework the show’s content. But what they’ll do with that extra time is open for debate.

“We needed to free up time for the show itself,” Askin says. “There were too many elements for a three-hour show, and not enough time to get any entertainment value into the show. We had to either (move things out) or modify it.”

Still, it was less of a shift than what had originally been proposed.

The ratings dip was blamed on several factors — most notably, viewers hadn’t seen and just didn’t care about many of the programs being honored.

Although critically acclaimed, comedy Emmy winner “Arrested Development” isn’t a megahit and now that the broadcast webs have mostly ceded the longform genre to cable, fewer Emmy viewers had heard of the nominees.

The night’s big winner in the longform category, HBO’s “Angels in America” might have been an Emmy triumph — scoring an astounding 11 awards — but only 30% of TV households receive the pay cabler, and certainly not all of those subscribers actually tuned in to the miniseries.

And another reason why viewers have turned away is that many of the winners in the “lesser” categories were folks nobody but the most hardened showbiz folks knows about.

After wringing their hands at the ratings dip, the TV Academy appointed two task forces to mull changes to the awards, representing a wide variety of Academy peer groups and TV industry players.

Both groups — led by ABC alternative/latenight/specials topper Andrea Wong and Prime Time Emmy Awards show chair Maura Dunbar — studied viewer feedback and research studies before suggesting that the org move several of the Emmy awards to its less glamorous Creative Arts ceremony.

The Emmys, after all, hand out at least 27 statues during the three-hour telecast; in comparison, the Academy Awards give out 23 Oscars in 3½ hours.

Hoping to free up some room, the blue-ribbon panels proposed removing the longform kudos for writing, directing, supporting actress and supporting actor from the primetime fete, and merging the movie and miniseries categories into one longform award.

In order to make the telecast more relevant to modern viewers, the groups suggested moving the reality series award to the Prime Time ceremony, and reviving the new-series trophy (which had last been awarded in 1973).

Implementation of the plans would have marked the Prime Time Emmys’ biggest shift since the early 1980s

The TV Academy immediately faced resistance, however, publicly from the directors and writers guilds, and privately from the pay cablers. The latter group quietly grumbled that the move smacked of sour grapes by the broadcast webs. ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox share the kudo-fest’s $52 million pricetag, and have been less than thrilled with showcasing so many cable noms.

As for the guilds, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America mobilized after word spread that several of their members’ categories were on the chopping block.

“For the Academy to deny the role of the key creative talent in genres which have traditionally offered some of the best programs on television would seem to be an abdication of the Academy’s raison d’etre,” DGA topper Michael Apted and WGA leader Daniel Petrie Jr. wrote in a letter to the org.

The guilds also pointed out that the plans would violate their agreement with the Acad. In a deal struck in 2003, the orgs agreed to allow clips to be shown on the Emmycast residual free as long as writing and directing awards were not pushed out.

“It was not necessarily collegial but it was not antagonistic,” Askin says. “They realized we had a problem. The peer groups came back with a proposal and led the way.”

Indeed, members of the Academy’s director and writer peer groups came up with the compromise, which was quickly hailed by both Apted and Petrie.

“We were very upset over what seemed to be an attempt to marginalize the creative contributions of our members, so we are thrilled that it didn’t have to be just us beating the ground,” Apted says.

Also dropped was the plan to merge the movie and miniseries categories, as org members successfully argued that minis would be unfairly advantaged.

Plans to bring back a new series Emmy were put on hold.

The taped acceptance speech compromise isn’t nearly as sweeping as the blue-ribbon panels’ proposals, but Askin says he believes cutting down on the time devoted to winners thanking their agents will inject new life into the telecast.

“This gives the executive producer more of a canvas to work with,” Askin says. “There are no guarantees this will lead to higher ratings but we had to take steps to building a better show.”

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